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East rivals catching up with Celtics

By Gary Washburn
January 10, 2011

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The class of the NBA field has separated itself approaching the halfway point of the season. And as much as teams choose not to acknowledge closely following the progress of their peers, that cannot be denied this season, especially with the Celtics.

Boston is skittish after last season, when a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs meant losing home-court advantage for the final three series of the postseason, especially the NBA Finals.

A five-horse race for the top seed in the East appears to be brewing and losses such as Saturday night’s 90-79 drubbing by the Chicago Bulls damage the Celtics’ quest for No. 1.

Just five games separate the top five teams in the East, and the conference-leading Celtics (28-8, .778) have been caught by the Heat (30-9, .769), despite Miami’s well-chronicled dismal start.

The Orlando Magic, who beat the Celtics on Christmas Day, are winners of nine straight, and the Atlanta Hawks are 8-2 in their past 10. There is an increased emphasis on the regular season, and scoreboard-watching has begun in earnest. Each time one of the other four teams drops a game, Boston realizes it has a chance to create more distance.

That’s why the Celtics can’t afford to waste opportunities, such as Saturday night’s.

“You gotta treat every game like [it’s crucial],’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “All these games are going to count coming down to the end of the season where you have three elite teams, maybe four elite teams at the top, all battling for playoff position.

“With the way the pace is going, it could come [down to] a game, a game and a half at the end of the season. So a lot of these games are important, especially if you go head-to-head with them.’’

Such circumstances make the Celtics’ six-game homestand, starting tonight against the Houston Rockets, so critical. Four of those games are against teams with losing records and another is a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rematch with the Magic, who may come into TD Garden with a double-digit winning streak.

After beginning the season 23-4, the Celtics are 5-4 in their past nine games, with Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett missing significant time because of injuries.

The Celtics were able to build an early Eastern Conference lead by capitalizing on the struggles of Miami and Orlando. Now that those teams have righted their ships while Atlanta and Chicago have remained steady, the Celtics will have to spend the next 46 games not preparing for the postseason, but beating up the lesser teams and also at least breaking even with Orlando and Miami. The Celtics are 2-1 against the Magic and Heat so far, with four more games to go against those foes.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Saturday that his team could not be adequately judged after 36 games because of injuries. But the loss to the Bulls was a stark reminder that opponents are not going to wait for the Celtics to reach full strength before attempting to overtake them in the East.

The Celtics are jockeys glancing left and right at the other horses, hoping the Heat, Magic, Hawks, and Bulls slip against lesser opponents.

“There’s always an opportunity to get better because you know the other side is getting better,’’ Celtics guard Ray Allen said.

“Sometimes the wins can be misleading as much as the losses can be misleading. You look at the records, sometimes you play tough teams and you’re losing and you’re battle-tested now and you’re a better team. And sometimes you’re winning games and you’re playing bad teams and that doesn’t make you better.’’

The Celtics were angry after Saturday night’s loss because they allowed the Bulls to push them around while Derrick Rose exposed holes in their defense. Many players promised a renewed sense of urgency because their lofty record isn’t so lofty anymore in comparison with the rest of the conference.

Injuries aren’t the Celtics’ only issues. Glen Davis is launching more than 14 shots per game since replacing Garnett in the starting lineup, and Rondo struggled badly keeping the physical and athletic Rose in front of him.

“I am not looking at anybody, I’m just worried about our team,’’ Rondo said. “I don’t like to use last year as an example but we were a fourth seed and we did a pretty good job until the end against the Lakers, which I still don’t think hurt us. We had two games to win one [in the Finals] and we lost both. I’m just worried about the Celtics . . . continue to get better as a team.

“I think this is a good loss for us . . . continue to learn from it. I know I can.’’

So expect a more focused effort beginning tonight because the challengers have indeed emerged, and the Celtics have no qualms admitting they are keeping an eye on the competition.

“I’m greedy,’’ Allen said. “I don’t want to share with nobody. I want it all. I’m trying to figure out any way you can get [a title] and every opportunity you can to get better, whether you’re on the court or off the court, you have to try to find it.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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